ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — President Pervez Musharraf is not running as a candidate in next week’s high-stakes parliamentary elections, but he could still end up as the biggest loser.
Polls suggest Musharraf’s ruling party will fare badly in the vote Monday, throwing the future of the key U.S. ally into doubt. The big winner is likely to be the party of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto whose assassination in December plunged Pakistani politics into crisis.
A legislature openly hostile to Musharraf could severely weaken him or even result in his removal from office. His popularity stands at 15% — about half that of President Bush, his biggest supporter.
“I’m pessimistic about Monday,” says Stephen Cohen, South Asia analyst at the Brookings Institution. “It’s too late to get a ‘good’ outcome from the U.S. perspective — one that would move Pakistan in the direction of a more open political system without abruptly removing Musharraf.”
Lack of support
A poll last month by the U.S.-funded, non-partisan International Republican Institute (IRI) found that only 14% of voters plan to vote for Musharraf’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q coalition.
“People do not believe in Musharraf,” says government clerk Mohammed Tufail, 26. “They hate him.”
Fifty percent of respondents to the IRI poll said they planned to vote for Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party. Bhutto was killed in a suicide bomb attack Dec. 27.
Peoples Party Co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s widower, told a Swiss newspaper this week that the party might consider impeaching Musharraf if it comes to power. Such a move could meet with popular support — in a Gallup Pakistan poll last month, 81% of Pakistanis said they wanted Musharraf to resign as president.
Political chaos could hamper President Bush’s desire to see Pakistan crack down on militants along its border with Afghanistan, where U.S. and NATO troops are based, although Bhutto’s party and others have stated that they want to maintain good ties with Washington.
“Musharraf is really irrelevant,” says Christine Fair, Pakistan specialist at the Rand Corp. think tank. “Washington does not seem to understand that.”
Musharraf’s authority eroded last fall when he bowed to international pressure and resigned as army chief, choosing to start a second presidential term as a civilian. Musharraf’s replacement as army chief removed military officers the president had installed in civilian government jobs. “That’s a big middle finger to Musharraf,” Fair says.
The Bush administration has stood behind Musharraf since he joined Washington’s war on terror after the 9/11 attacks, rounding up al-Qaeda suspects and providing support for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.
Some political observers say Musharraf and his coalition can survive only by cheating in Monday’s vote for the National Assembly, the lower house of Pakistan’s parliament. “Free and fair elections are not going to put his homeboys in the National Assembly,” Fair says.
Promise of fair elections
Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, leader of the pro-Musharraf faction, told reporters this week that he was confident that voters would return his party to power and claimed responsibility for Pakistan’s recent record of strong economic growth.
Musharraf pledged again Thursday that “despite all the rumors, insinuations and every type of apprehension, these elections will be free, fair, transparent and peaceful.”
Last fall, Musharraf purged the courts of independent judges and ordered television networks to sign a code of conduct restricting their freedom to cover the election.
The International Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution think tank, and other observers criticized elections in 2005 as rigged. That vote put pro-Musharraf officials in charge of the local governments that will oversee polling stations across the country for the coming election.
The national election commission has ignored hundreds of opposition complaints of irregularities — including allegations of bribery and political violence, says Sheila Fruman of the non-partisan National Democratic Institute. The commission did not return repeated calls for comment.
A stolen election could send fed-up Pakistanis into the streets, creating more chaos in a country facing regular terrorist attacks and a Taliban insurgency along its northwest frontier.
“If the vote goes against the wishes of the people, the public anger will be great,” says Hasham Baber, a candidate for the opposition Awami National Party in the northwestern city of Peshawar. “There will be anarchy.”
Many Pakistanis — pundits and ordinary people alike — speak in dire terms about where their country is headed. “We are headed toward civil war,” pollster Wasim Zaidi says.
Since Pakistan was founded six decades ago, Zaidi says, the country has been dominated by an elite that did little for ordinary people.
Some say Monday will be a turning point, though they’re not sure what kind.
“These elections could destroy the country,” says driver Hammad Raza, 25. “Or they could put the country on the right track.”